Tend My Sheep

The famous exchange between Jesus and Peter towards the end of the Gospel of John is pretty rich with intriguing details, but I didn’t realize how far those details went until I examined the Greek more closely in preparation for this past Sunday’s sermon.  A number of people across the board have pointed out that there are two different words for ‘love’ used in that conversation, but that’s not the only wordplay going on.  Let’s zoom in on the verses in question (15-17).

Verse 15
Jesus: Do you αγαπας me?
Peter: Yes Lord, you οιδας that I φιλω you.
Jesus: Βοσκε my αρνία.

Verse 16
Jesus: Do you αγαπας me?
Peter: Yes Lord, you οιδας that I φιλω you.
Jesus: Ποιμαινε my προβατα.

Verse 17
Jesus: Do you φιλεις me?
Peter:
Lord… you γινοσκεις that I φιλω you.
Jesus:
Βοσκε my προβατα.

There are eight words in the Greek that get reduced to four in English: αγαπας and φιλω, οιδας and γινοσκεις, βοσκε and ποιμαινε, and αρνία and προβατα.  Τhe main pattern I need to point out immediately is that of these pairings, one word is used twice and its partner only once.  The purpose for this is a matter of emphasis – St. John is bringing out a different facet of the conversation in each verse.  When I preached from this passage on Sunday I didn’t get into the little details, so now here I will.

Some Greek scholars will argue that all of these word pairings are synonyms, and there’s therefore no significance to their variation.  Although they may well be right from a vocabulary standpoint, the way they vary in these verses is clear indication from a literary standpoint that the distinctions between them (however small) were in fact intentional.

Love: αγαπας & φιλω

These two words for love – agapas and philo – are two of four words that describe various types of love.  Agape love is the deepest, highest, or most spiritual form of love: it connotes a self-sacrificial love: you would die for the person or object receiving this type of love for you.  Jesus asks Peter twice if he loves him in this way.  Both times Peter dodges the question by responding that he loves him in the philo sense.  Philo love is a brotherly or fraternal love.  It, too, is a deep bond of affection and affinity, which ties family or family-like friends together, but it does not necessarily carry the same weight of commitment as agape love.  So when, the third time, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus condescends to this philo category.  Peter, now, is hurt, because he realizes that Jesus is asking for a deeper love than he has.

On the plus side, when Jesus goes on to predict Peter’s death in verses 18 and 19, he implies (correctly) that Peter will die for him.  Although it strikes the reader as a morbid thing to say at such a tender moment, it’s actually a beautiful promise, because the fact that Peter will someday die for Jesus is tantamount to saying that Peter will someday attain to that agape love Jesus was just asking for.  Jesus recognizes that Peter does not yet have a fully matured love for him, but promises that he will get there.

Know: οιδας & γινοσκεις

Many languages have multiple words (well, usually two) for the English words “know” and “knowledge.”  One type of knowledge is objective factual knowledge (like how I know that Edinburgh is the capitol city of Scotland) and the other type of knowledge is abstract relational knowledge (like how I know my friend Ben).  It’s a little harder for me to see the significance of the variation in Peter’s usage of these words, but the best clue is that it ties directly with his responses to Jesus’ usage of the “love” words.

When Jesus asks if Peter αγαπε-loves him, Peter responds that Jesus οιδας (abstract-relationally knows) that he φιλω-loves him.  Both the relational knowledge word and the brotherly love word imply that Peter is appealing to the relationship that he and Jesus have had for the Past three years.  It seems like a good idea, but as Jesus demonstrates in the third verse, it’s not enough.

When Jesus swaps to asking Peter if he φιλω-loves him, even though Peter has already said that he did, Peter is forced to respond differently: “you know all things, you know that I love you!”  That final “know” word is the objective-factual knowledge word γινοσκεις.  Peter is forced to realize (or admit) that the love he has for Jesus is concretely knowable, not just in a relationship, but in fact.  It’s not just a “personal relationship with Jesus in his heart,” but it’s an observable concrete fact.  When we run around saying that Christianity is “not a religion, but a relationship,” we’re basically making the same claim that Peter started out with.  What we realize in Peter’s final admission here is that Christianity is a relationship and a religion: it’s not all spiritualized mumbo-jumbo, but has real objective manifestations in doctrine and in practice.

Tend: βοσκε & ποιμαινε

Once again, these two words have very close meanings.  Βοσκε is a word referring to tending, taking care of, or feeding animals.  It’s a very mundane sort of concept.  The other word, ποιμαινε, means the same thing on the practical level, but it is connected to the Greek word for shepherd.  So while the first word describes the job, the second word implies a deeper commitment to the job.  The first word is the basic command to look after the flock, the second word is the deeper command to shepherd the flock.

Jesus uses the first word, βοσκε, twice: in verses 15 and 17.  In the middle verse he uses the shepherd word, ποιμαινε.  The significance to this is nothing crazily profound: at the basic level, he’s telling Peter to look after the flock of God, just as he had been doing with him and the other disciples already.  When Jesus swaps to the command to shepherd the flock, he’s emphasizing that Christian ministry has a loving characteristic to it; it’s not just a job to fill, but must be characterized by love and compassion.  (And what could be more loving and compassionate than feeding the sheep food that feeds them unto eternal life!?)

Sheep: προβατα & άρνία

Finally, we’ve got the sheepy words.  Twice Jesus refers to God’s flock (the Church) as προβατα – the generic word for sheep or flock.  In the first verse, though, Jesus instead calls us άρνία, which is a version of the ancient Greek word for lambs.  Although by the 1st century this word was becoming synonymous with the generic word for sheep, it still tended to refer to sheep or lambs in a special context, such as young lambs that need extra attention, or the lamb prepared for sacrifice (such as in one of Jesus’ titles “Lamb of God”).  By referring to us, the Church, as lambs, Jesus emphasized that we’re not just any old flock, but one which needs particular care, attention, guidance, and protection.  We can’t just be tended or fed (βοσκε), but we need active and involved shepherding (ποιμαινε)!

Piecing these all together…

One final observation to wrap this is up: in three verses, three emphases are made.

  1. In verse 15 we find the emphasis that the sheep are lambs, needing that extra care.
  2. In verse 16 we find the emphasis that ministers need to shepherd, not just tend.
  3. In verse 17 we see the culmination of the love-knowledge lesson regarding the concrete-objective and self-sacrificial relationship that Jesus wants us to have with him, as he has for us.

In reporting this conversation, St. John has pointed out these three key points of emphasis to help us better understand Jesus’ words to Peter so we can be better sheep and our shepherds be better shepherds.  More on that this coming Sunday!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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